Sunday, April 28, 2019

Review of The New Colony's Small World

Once upon a time I went to a show and it was called Small World. It was written by Jillian Leff and Joe Lino, and it was directed by Andrew Hobgood. It was about a group of cast members at a Disney theme park who are trapped inside of the "It's a Small World" ride after a disaster that has caused the ride to fall apart around them. They all are trying to get out of the ride and save themselves. But they don't all share the same ideas of how to go about it. It is about destruction in the face of happiness, intolerance, and forced camaraderie. I think this is a very intriguing show. It uses a lot of humorous elements to make a larger point. It was a very fun time while also being quite distressing.

I think this play was set at Disney to show how different people relate to Disney's utopia policy of making everything perfect. That kind of illusion can help some people, but it can also ruin lives. Each of the characters had a different relationship to Disney. Kim (Stephanie Shum) loved it because she felt like it helped her survive when she felt abandoned. She is invested in preserving the illusion of Disney as a magical place where nothing bad can happen and dreams really do come true. Even though she is severely injured, all she can talk about is Disney and its rules. She is a rule follower, and there doesn't seem to be an end to that. Donny (Patriac Coakley) had loved Disney as a child, but he grew to have a bad relationship with it because one of the cast members ruined the illusion for him. Becca (Jackie Seijo) has come to Disney to get away from her old life. She is surrounded by all these things at Disney that remind her that her own past behavior was less than chivalrous. There is this idea of Price Charming that has been a staple of Disney for years, but she realizes that in abandoning her own princess she has destroyed her own life. Kim embraces the illusion, Donny wants to destroy the illusion just like it was destroyed for him, and for Becca the illusion is a reminder of past mistakes.

Grotesqueness and humor have an interesting pairing in this show. For the entire show, Kim has metal rod impaled in her leg. Where some of the comedy comes from is her trying to keep her spirits up and do what she needs to do in spite of the obvious inconvenience. At one point they find the dead body of their coworker, which produced quite a bit of slapstick comedy. In some ways laughing at disgusting and frightening things is a coping mechanism. If we can laugh at such bad things, like death and pain, it makes us feel like they are not as awful or serious. Humor may not be facing the issue directly, but it can be better than just ignoring it. Humor can show a true understanding of a topic. I think it is good to find humor in scary things because it helps us cope with them and face them more head-on.

This play is very good at pulling you into the story immediately. When the lights come up at the start of the play I was like, "Oh my god. What is happening." It seems like Kim has just gotten impaled and everyone is panicked and basically the first few second while the lights are down are just people screaming. It was a very startling start because it is a mixture of two worlds that are total opposites: a ride talking about how everyone is connected and everyone should just love each other mixed with the aftermath of horror, death, and violence. It was effective because it showed how they were related, the happiness and the horror. It shows you a dark side of Disney and how in this case Disney made people feel bad, or weak, or excluded. What is magical for some can be a disaster for other. But it also reminds us that the idea of everyone coming together and not being so different can survive disaster.

People who would like this show are people who like analysis of Disney, exploring dark undertones, and startling and humorous impalements. I think this is a very strange but fun show. I haven't seen anything like it and it created a new amalgamation in my eyes: the disaster-workplace-grotesque-dark comedy. I liked it.

Photos: Evan Hanover

Monday, April 22, 2019

Review of Lottery Day at Goodman Theatre

Once upon a time I went to a show and it was called Lottery Day. It was written by Ike Holter, and it was directed by Lili-Anne Brown. It was about a woman named Mallory (J. Nicole Brooks) who had lost her husband and daughter five years earlier. She was hosting a party for all of her closest friends and enemies to get rid of a large amount of money that she had come into but didn't want anything to do with because of the memories it brought up for her. It is about family, loss, and community. I thought this was a moving, funny, and immersive show. It felt like I was actually at a party; all the interactions between the characters felt very recognizable, genuine, and complicated.

This is the final play in a 7-play series, all set in Rightlynd, which is an imaginary neighborhood in Chicago. Rightlynd is undergoing gentrification, and all the people living there now are dealing with the issues caused by it in different ways. I have only seen four of the seven--Lottery Day, Red Rex, Prowess, and Exit Strategy--but I would love to see them all. I feel like it would help me get even more references. It kind of reminds me of the Marvel Universe, where things that don't seem to be connected at first end up coming together. It is so exciting to see the characters from the plays you've seen over a long period of time come together, sort of like The Avengers. I love the character of Tori (Aurora Adachi-Winter) from Red Rex, who also appears in this show. She is so awkward in a confident way. I feel like I've never seen someone who fits that description in a play before, but I definitely know people in real life who are like that. Lottery Day shows that she has made the connections in the community that no one else in the theater company seemed to realize were needed. Zora (Sydney Charles), from Prowess, is still such a badass, even though she's been through so much. In Prowess, she was learning the ropes and was new to everything, but now she is more experienced and seems tired. You see that she did some of what she set out to do, but maybe it's not all she thought it would be. Ricky (Pat Whalen), from Exit Strategy was mentioned in Red Rex, so it was exciting to see him after hearing about him in the later play. Here he seems more laid back, but still very eager to please. He's like, "I just want everyone to like me. Why isn't it working?" It is both irritating and lovable at the same time.

I think it was good that there were new characters in this story because even though it is everyone coming together, the new characters explain why they all came together and what has been their driving force. This play is Mallory's story, and she was a new character to me and in the saga. She's old friends with Robinson (Robert Cornelius), from Rightlynd, Nunley (Tony Santiago), from The Wolf at the End of the Block, and Avery (James Vincent Meredith), who is a new character. She raised Zora, Cassandra (McKenzie Chinn), from Sender, and the new character Ezekiel (Tommy Rivera-Vega). The new characters are just as compelling and complicated as the ones we've seen before. I'm impressed by that because it is difficult to write new characters for the world that compare to characters we already know and love. We already see Ezekiel's connection with Mallory before we know his backstory. He shows his personality very obviously in his first few seconds on stage. He is energetic and eager and very excited to launch his rap career. Avery has known Mallory for a very long time and there is a great tension between them, which you see from their first moments on stage. They both clearly care about each other and know each other very well. The seem to have a rich history, even though we haven't seen it from beginning to end.

I think that Mallory is a very interesting character because of her past and how she copes with that. She has a fear of being alone, so her coping mechanism is to filter her feelings about her loss through parties and barbecues and taking in people who need her help. Even though she has been like a mother to many people, she isn't the stereotype of the harsh but loving black matriarch. She is very clearly messed up and hurt, which gives her more layers. She is mysterious and unpredictable even though she is loving and is planning on giving a lot of money away. She uses her power sometimes in a loving and effective way and sometimes just to use it. I think this play shows how a hero can be complicated and manipulative while still having a positive effect on a lot of people. One of her more complicated choices is inviting Vivien (Michele Vazquez), her new next door neighbor who flips houses, to the party. It is hard to tell if she is trying to make a gesture to say, "even though we are different, we can still be friends," or if she is intimidating Vivien and putting her in a situation she is not very good at adapting to.

People who would like this show are people who like complicated heroines, the Marvel Universe of Chicago Theatre, and confidently awkward people. I think this is a really great show. I was so engaged in it the entire time. It has amazing actors, is beautifully written, and has an amazing director. I loved all of it.

Photos: Liz Lauren

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Review of Refuge Theatre Project's Hands on a Hardbody

Once upon a time I went to a show and it was called Hands on a Hardbody. The book was by Doug Wright and the lyrics were by Amanda Green. The music was by Trey Anastasio and Green. It was directed by Christopher Pazdernik, with music direction by Jon Schneidman and choreography by Ariel Triunfo. It was about a competition in Longview, Texas to win a truck. To win it, you had to keep your hand on it for the longest, which is a lot harder than you might think at first because there is no time limit. You get to learn various life stories of the contestants and what has motivated them to partake in this competition. It is about different types of people coming together, what makes someone more deserving than others, and the "American Dream." I thought it was very well performed and had a story I never would have imagined would make such a compelling musical.

I really liked the construct of the show and how there was a song to show why they each needed the truck. One of my favorite songs of this nature that really stood out to me was "Born in Laredo," which was sung by Jesus Peña (Sebastian Summers). It was sparked by Cindy Barnes (Jenna Fawcett) asking him for identification to make sure he wasn't an illegal immigrant, even though she hadn't asked anyone else that question. The song is about how everybody looks at Jesus like he doesn't belong even though he was born in Texas. People make assumptions about him--that he is a foreigner, that he doesn't speak English, and that he is a criminal--but he just wants to be seen as a Texan. He needs the truck so he can sell it to go to veterinary school so he can achieve the basic respect that someone who was white would get automatically. I really liked "Burn That Bridge," sung by Heather Stovall (Molly Kral) and Mike Ferris (Dan Gold) because of the great harmonies and chemistry the actors had. They both had a great twang to their voice that added a southern flair. It shows one of the less noble motivations of the contestants. Heather just really wants fame. She has other less important goals: just wanting the truck because she wants to have a truck and it reminds her of her dad. That doesn't stack up as well as someone who needs it to get through school.

I also really enjoyed the song "My Problem Right There," sung by Ronald McCowan (Jared David Michael Grant) as he suffers the effects of having eaten too many candy bars. It talks about his bad life choices and how his problems affect him. But it is a very upbeat song with three backup singer/dancers like The Ronettes, which is appropriate since his name is Ronald. I think it is important that the song is upbeat because if the song was slow and lamenting, it would defeat the idea of the character who is “upbeat” even under the ridiculous circumstances that he is under. And that personality trait is why even though he is there for a short time he makes so many friends and lifts the group spirits even if they are competitors. Something I noticed was how when Ron came back he tries to show Norma (Cathy Reyes McNamara) how her religious practices can help the whole group and that if she just unplugs and spreads the love that she has for God, she could make a lot of people much happier.

This play tackles a very difficult subject: what makes someone deserving. It is hard to decide in this play who should get the truck and who does not deserve it. For example, at first Benny (Derek Fawcett) seems like an outright greedy bad person because of his general demeanor, but then we see him helping out and giving tips to J.D. (Tim Kough). Benny still does not seem to me to be the most deserving of the truck because even in his last ballad he says some racist and rude things. He does this even in a song supposed to show that he is “not so bad” after all. I think that this show is not trying to say, “this person needs this truck more than this person, so you should give it to them, and if they don’t get the truck it is a tragedy.” The musical is trying to show that no one is perfect. This play is not a battle of good vs. evil; it is a battle of people vs. people. Even though, of course, we all have our favorite characters, they are all not perfect and all have somewhat valid reasons for why this truck is so important to them. The audience favors the characters they relate to the most, but each individual audience member might have a different opinion about who is the most worthy.

People who would like this show are people who like plays that challenge the basic structure of good vs. evil, bridge-burning tension, and Ronald-ettes. I think that people should go see this show. It is very heartfelt and fun, and it has great performances. I really liked it.

Photos: Nick Roth

Sunday, April 7, 2019

Review of Requiem for a Heavyweight at The Artistic Home

Once upon a time I went to a show and it was called Requiem for a Heavyweight. It was by Rod Serling and it was directed by John Mossman. It was about a heavyweight champion who went by "Mountain" (Mark Pracht) who had been told he needed to retire because his body was getting too many injuries and he would go blind if he continued in boxing. He tries to get into another line of work, but of course it is not so easy to get a day job when all you have done your whole life is boxing. His manager Maish (Patrick Thornton) wants him to keep fighting, no matter how much it hurts him, and he has started betting on him to lose, so no matter what he can profit off him. Army (Todd Wojcik) tries to be the voice of reason, but Maish won't listen to him. Mountain finds an unexpected ally in Grace (Annie Hogan), who tries to help him find a new job. It is about masculinity, what makes someone deserving of love, and people taking advantage of people at their most vulnerable times. I thought this was an effective play with a great cast and compelling visuals.

The synchronized movement and sound sequences reminded me of more contemporary shows that use percussive dancing like Stomp. The actors are on stage and doing these sequences during transitions. The rhythm was coming from boxing gloves hitting the punch mitts and punching bags and also occasionally from their voices. The sequences would also emphasize moments that had happened in previous scenes, like when Perelli (John LaFlamboy), the wrestling promoter, was beginning to show his true colors. In the transition following you could see him laughing to himself in a maniacal fashion while the men on the sidelines where aggressively punching as background to his cackling. Perelli was very well played. He was very disconcerting and LaFlamboy made him very memorable. He reminded me of a toned-down Joker. His crimes were less deadly, but executed in a similarly wickedly gleeful way.

Violence and how it is tied to masculinity is a very big element of this show. This play was set in the 1950s and though this production features some actors of color in minor roles, it still felt like a very white play mainly concerned with the problems of white men. So it is not representing nonwhite masculinity to any extent. Mountain is an example of innocent, oblivious masculinity. He fights because he has been told that is what he is good at. He dropped out of school, so he thinks fighting is all that he is good for. He is oblivious to how violence has hurt him. He sees boxing as his saving grace that helped him find a job and do something with his life, despite the fact that it has destroyed his mind and body. He doesn't seem to have his own mind, but just follows the rules. When he loses his position as a professional boxer, he seems to lose his main source of feeling masculine because he can't take care of himself. The way he used to take care of himself was through the violent act of boxing. I think that Pracht did a great job of capturing the innocence and eventual noble humiliation of Mountain.

Maish's masculinity is very different. He feels very confident and thinks he only needs women for sex if he needs them at all. He doesn't show his emotions, except anger, until the end of the play when he is left alone. His ideas of masculinity conflict with his love for Mountain, because he can't show concern or love because he sees it as unmasculine. His entire profession is centered around violence, even if he doesn't often put himself in harm's way. Army, I think, is the best representation of masculinity because he makes up for Maish's lack of visible affection and concern, or even interest, in Mountain's life outside of boxing. He helps Mountain out in his job search and with his injuries in the ring. He is a nurturing type of man. He understands what is wrong with things and how to stand up to corruption. I think Wojcik did a lovely job of showing the shift between how he acted when Maish was around and when he wasn't. Maish doesn't ask for help so he makes a mess out of Mountain who doesn't know what to do about the mess, so Army picks it up.

People who would like this show are people who like explorations of white masculinity, rhythmic boxing, and wickedly gleeful wrestling promoters. I think this is a compelling story and it has some great performances.

Photos: Joe Mazza/Brave Lux